Libertarian Group Campaigning to Cut $20M in Funding for Idaho Universities

With Idaho's public education system already ranking well below average in several areas, Republican lawmakers and Libertarian group Idaho Freedom Foundation are continuing campaigns to cut as much as $20 million from public university funding in 2022.

Idaho lawmakers already cut funding by $2.5 million earlier this year while crafting a budget that had a surplus in funds.

Conservative lawmakers and activists have cited the supposed teaching of "critical race theory" (CRT) in schools to justify their calls for cuts to education spending.CRT is a concept that views and encourages discussions of history through the lens of analyzing the impact racism has had on past events and how it formed modern society.

Idaho is at or near the bottom of the nation in graduation rates—around 82 percent over the last two years, according to the Idaho State Department of Education—higher than just five states and the District of Columbia. The amount of money the state spends per student in the public education system, $7,705 per student in the 2019-20 school year, ranked last in the nation, according to the National Education Association.

The already low education statistics and calls to cut even more funding have also impacted how businesses in and out of the state see Idaho and its ability to produce an educated, skilled workforce.

The Associated Press reported that some employers are unsure of making their employees live in a state where they may not be confident in the education their children can receive in a state that so strictly limits resources given to public schools.

Idaho, Public Education Funding, Critical Race Theory
Calls from Republicans and Libertarian groups to cut funding from Idaho's public education system comes as the state already ranks at or near the bottom in several education statistics. Above, a woman walks across the University of Idaho campus during a snowstorm on October 23, 2020, in Moscow, Idaho. Geoff Crimmins/The Moscow-Pullman Daily News via AP

"The message the Legislature is sending to businesses is very discouraging," said Rod Gramer, president of Idaho Business for Education, an advocacy group. "I think it's very harmful to our state. Not just our business community, but for our future as a state and our economy and our quality of life."

For preschoolers, lawmakers earlier this year rejected a $6 million early childhood learning federal grant from the Trump administration. One Republican lawmaker said he opposed anything making it easier for mothers to work outside the home.

The association also estimates the average national classroom teacher salary at $65,000. Idaho ranks 39th with an average salary of just under $53,000 and 35th in average starting salary at $38,000.

Boise-based computer chip maker Micron Technology, one of Idaho's largest employers, earlier this month announced plans to build a 500-worker, memory design center in Georgia. The company is the nation's second-largest semiconductor maker, with product development sites in five other states and eight countries.

Micron Chief People Officer April Arnzen, in a statement to the Associated Press, said the Atlanta Design Center will give it an opportunity to attract technical talent from a large and diverse student population from the area's strong university presence, which includes Emory University, Georgia Tech, Morehouse College, Spelman College and the University of Georgia.

Micron has significant ties at Boise State University with the Micron College of Business and Economics and the Micron Center for Materials Research. Arnzen said K-12 and higher education are critical components to the company's success in Idaho.

"A well-funded educational system is essential to maintaining our workforce and necessary for our team members and their families," Arnzen said. "Continued attacks on our universities and community colleges make it harder to develop an effective workforce pipeline."

"Our public schools are grotesque, and adding more money is not going to solve the problem," the libertarian group's president, Wayne Hoffman, said during a speech in northern Idaho earlier this month. "The government should not be in the education business. They're brainwashing our kids."

He said his group worked hard in getting Republican lawmakers to cut the $2.5 million from universities earlier this year. He said he wants to cut $20 million from universities when the Legislature meets in early 2022.

Others see the issue as a ploy to stoke base voters and influence policy decisions to undermine education.

"It's a red-herring issue," said Gramer, the Idaho Business for Education president. "We've got to be investing in education and not listening to the naysayers."

But Hoffman has about a dozen House Republicans and sometimes more who will vote according to his wishes, making his plan to cut $20 million from universities more than just grandstanding.

"There is a small, extreme right-wing view out there that is hostile toward public education and opportunities for Idahoans," said Alex Labeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry, a business lobbying group.

On other fronts, far-right-wing Republican Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin, who is running against Republican Governor Brad Little for his job, last summer gathered a like-minded task force to "examine indoctrination in Idaho education," and made recommendations to the Legislature that included rejecting federal education grant money.

In northern Idaho, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities is reviewing the accreditation of North Idaho College after three of the five nonpartisan board of trustee seats were won by candidates backed by the far-right Kootenai County Republican Central Committee. With the majority, the board without cause fired the college president.

Additionally, many public school districts can't get by on money allocated by state lawmakers, and they have turned to voters to ask them to approve levies for ongoing expenses or bonds to build schools, typically resulting in local property tax increases. Republican lawmakers in recent years have tried to eliminate some school bond and levy election dates.

Meanwhile, a group called Reclaim Idaho is gathering signatures to get the Quality Education Act on the November 2022 ballot. If the group is successful and voters approve, it would add $300 million annually to K-12 education. The money would come from raising the corporate income tax rate to 8 percent and adding a 4.5 percent income tax on high earners.

"We have a crisis in our state," said Luke Mayville, co-founder of Reclaim Idaho.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Idaho, Public Education Funding, Critical Race Theory
This year, Idaho approved a measure aimed at preventing schools and universities from "indoctrinating" students through teaching critical race theory. Above, Idaho students fill the gallery as education legislation is debated at the state capitol in Boise on April 26, 2021. Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman via AP File